Modern Griots Reviews: Terence Nance Weekend
Last weekend, I saw two of Terence Nance‘s films, The Oversimplification of Her Beauty and Triptych, at Urbanworld. It was as if swirling in a void somewhere between reality and fantasy. That is one way I would describe the first of Nance’s introspective and experimental films, The Oversimplification of Her Beauty (previously known as How Would U Feel?). The film extraordinary not only because it details personal experiences of Nance’s own frustrations, awkwardness and hardships in relationships, but also in its imaginative blending of film genres.
The Oversimplification of Her Beauty began in 2006 as a way for Nance to express his feelings for a close friend and then expanded it from there. In the film, the two aspects that catches your attention first are the use of the pause/eject/play VCR player framing of the film and the detached and serious narrator who sounds like he came from an old-school educational film. Balancing them out are the dreamlike and whimsical animation styles that are interspersed in the film. Together they create a more light-hearted touch to what could have been another dramatic relationship movie.
Throughout are switches between different animation styles (10 animators worked on the film), including wooden puppet stop motion, and between other film styles, like cinema verite/documentary and a more fictionalized style, and between the stages of filmmaking. Even the narrators switch between the detached one and fading into Nance, creating during certain moments a more personal touch. These techniques gave substance to the film’s ideas on logic and emotion, reality, fantasy and expectations, how experiences and memory affect the mind or how we “edit” them, including in relationships, and the messiness of them all.
Nance further achieves this through his use of poetic and metaphorical language and a musical approach to the film. Nance’s language in the film sounds as if he is trying to logically analyze emotionally and musically-based visuals, which is an interesting contrast. Not only is the soundtrack notable, which Nance put together, but the riffing on a theme feel. In his breaking down and looking back on himself and his past relationships to understand his current relationship, we saw an expansion of the single synopsis from the beginning when his romantic interest cancels on a date, and finally returning us to that point.
So, at this moment, given the aforementioned circumstances, how do I feel? I feel tired after processing that film, but in a good way and I would definitely like to see it again.
In Triptych, which was co-directed by Terence Nance and Barron Clairborne, it was yet another fusion of reality and fantasy through the profiles of three artists, Sanford Biggers, Wangechi Mutu and Barron Clairborne, himself. While the three artists gave their own personal and real accounts of their influences and experiences, the film does so in a mythological, magical realist framework.
The main point of this film was how these artists handled identity and history and how they weaved themselves in and out of them. For them what did it mean to be a “black” artist and how do they deal with the history that imposes that on them through their art.
For instance, Sanford Biggers plays with identity and history in his art like the minstrel smile in his pieces for “Cheshire,” the mythologizing of the helicopter in “Ghettobird,” in “Danpatsu” and “Hip Hop Ni Sasagu (In Fond Memory of Hip-Hop),” where he connects aspects of African-American and Japanese culture, and his cosmic mapping of quilts in African-American culture. He even jokingly says while donning a grotesque mask: “I am actually a Japanese artist wearing the mask of a Black man manufactured by a White person to look like your idea of a rapper.” I enjoyed Biggers statements on challenging of the so-called “empirical” facts; what we know as truth can change. He claimed that all history is speculative; that facts are not really importance unless they are useful and can be revised and rearranged to create new futures.
In her artwork, Wangechi Mutu as well confronts her own identity as a Black Kenyan (Kikuyu) woman through themese of hybridity, magic, myth, culture and religion. Presenting herself as a kind of wise woman, maybe a “witch,” in a forest, Mutu highlights her own Kikuyu cultural influences and how they are starting to disappear because of Western intrusion. Not only did she give a look at cultural differences outside of race, but also how western culture affects traditional cultures of countries all over the world. What do we lose when these cultures are erased? Learning about the naming practices in Kikuyu culture (her first name was passed down as a form of reincarnation), jinnis, traditional Kikuyu religion giving way to Christianity and Mutu’s thoughts as an immigrant, her use of hybridity in her work makes sense. Part of it is recognizing that she has to let go of certain things and create another reality for herself combining the old and the new.
Last, Clairborne was the silliest of the three, using his humor and the photography to force us to rethink how we categorize ourselves and others. From how he media portrayed hip-hop artists to how certain books gave a depressing look at black life, for Clairborne is just showed how “blackness” is an illusion, a mask that everyone can be trapped in. Instead he wants to show a different side — a beauty, dignity, resilience and humor in a people — and it shows in his work. He was a great finish to these different artists who step outside the box of a world that tries to put black artists in a box.